U.S. state-run sterilization policies targeted the poor in the 20th century

Cover of the book Fixing the Poor

In Fixing the Poor: Eugenic Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century, author and history Professor Molly Ladd-Taylor uses institutional and medical records, court cases, newspapers and professional journals to reconstruct the stories of those targeted by eugenics programs between 1907 and the 1970s.

Eugenics – the controversial idea of controlling reproduction to improve the human population – was popular in the early 20th century.

“Most scholars see eugenic sterilization as the result of an ideologically-driven plan to breed a better race,” says Ladd-Taylor. “My book, which is the first to analyze the routine operation of a state sterilization program, argues that sterilization practice was equally shaped by a longer term ‘welfare’ concern with limiting the state’s financial responsibility for the poor – especially the supposedly ‘undeserving’ poor.”

The book is geared to anyone interested in eugenics, reproduction, sexuality, welfare, disability and social justice. Ladd-Taylor was inspired to tackle this topic because of her longtime interest in motherhood and social policy in the United States. Her early research reveals how female activists used the image of the poverty-stricken “good” mother to campaign for maternal and child health policies.

“In this book, my attention shifts to ‘bad’ mothers, as I seek to understand how social welfare policies affected those considered too irresponsible or immoral to rear – or even bear – the nation’s citizens,” she says. “In the 1920s and 1930s, as today, there is a great deal of antipathy toward poor people who are viewed as different or damaged and therefore a menace or burden to society. There was – and still is – a fear that young, sexually active women who got pregnant outside marriage would have illegitimate children the taxpayers would have to support.”

She warns that the social pressures that led to eugenic sterilization abuses in the 20th century are present today.

“We tend to associate eugenics with racist intent and the Nazis, but sterilization practices were rooted in America’s underfunded and locally oriented public welfare systems,” she says.

Although everyone targeted by eugenic sterilization policies was poor, most were also categorized as “feeble-minded” or “insane.” Finding out why they were so categorized is a central question of Ladd-Taylor’s research.

“My conclusion is that there was no consistent criteria for eugenic judgments, only a cruel arbitrariness,” she says. “The ‘feeble minded’ label was expansive; it could refer to poor whites, blacks, immigrants, unwed mothers, criminals and people with disabilities who could not, or would not, adhere to white middle-class norms. Many women who were designated feeble-minded and sterilized had been sexually abused. But it is important to remember that most people who fit those labels were never sterilized.”

Molly Ladd-Taylor

In Minnesota, the focus of Ladd-Taylor’s book, the “price of freedom” from state institutions for those labelled “feeble-minded” or “insane” was sterilization surgery. The law required the written consent of kin.

“Decisions in Minnesota about sterilization were bureaucratic,” she says. “They involved many people and many steps: local school or welfare officials who identified the ‘feeble-minded’ person; doctors and psychologists who provided a diagnosis, a judge who committed the person to guardianship, family members who consented to the surgery and state bureaucrats who arranged the operation. No one individual or group exercised total control.”

For additional information from the author on Fixing the Poor, visit her blog posts for Johns Hopkins University Press or Page 99.